First short session ends on time

Oregon lawmakers concluded their first-ever short session on Monday, pleased that they addressed multiple statewide concerns while being awakened to the limitations of a 35-day timeframe.

By most accounts, legislators succeeded in working together on issues of need in Oregon.

“The Legislature’s action on job creation, health care transformation, and education improvements, combined with the discipline to rebalance the budget, has laid the foundation for a more prosperous future for our state,” Governor John Kitzhaber said.

Oregon House Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) echoed that sentiment, singling out the passage of the Oregon Investment Act, Oregon Credit Enhancement Act, and the expansion of enterprise zones for job creation, as well as a foreclosure reform bill.

“We came together as a House and as a Legislature to prove, once again, that when we put policy over politics, we can deliver for Oregonians,” he said.

Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls) and Representative Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), who both represent Crook County, gave the session praise as well. At the same time, it wasn’t perfect and some results left them disappointed.

“The budgets were rebalanced without raising taxes and very few if any fees going up,” Whitsett said. He pointed out that some shifting of funds to accompish that goal may not be sustainable long-term and will lead to added costs in the next budget cycle. Nevertheless, he considers the rebalance an overall success.

Whitsett singled out some legislation that he was particularly pleased to see pass.

“I think the Facebook bill (SB 1532) was very good,” he remarked.

Passage of another bill (SB 1533) that he sponsored could boost the geothermal industry.

“Currently, there is a law in Oregon that any new (public) building that costs $1 million or more, or the cost of remodeling is more than 50 percent of the value of the building, has to use 1.5 percent solar energy,” Whitsett explained. “The bill that we got passed expands that also to the use of geothermal energy.”

Other legislation left him with lingering concerns. Whitsett voted in favor of a bill that establishes a new health insurance exchange in Oregon (HB 4164), after voting against it in the 2011 session. The bill creates an online marketplace for people to shop for health insurance.

“I think we got it pretty right,” he said. “The purpose of the exchange, on the one hand, is to have the structure in place if the Patient Affordability Act actually withstands the constitutional challenges and becomes a law. (But) I was convinced this time that even if it doesn’t become part of the Patient Affordability Act, it will be useful for health care delivery in Oregon.”

Another health care bill associated with federal health care reform legislation did not garner his support. Senate Bill 1580 creates Coordinated Care Organizations with the intent of improving care while lowering cost. Whitsett has doubts that the federal government will provide enough money to the state to enable the new legislation to succeed.

Along with health care, other bills sought to reform education in Oregon. House Bill 4165 was designed to streamline early childhood education, while Senate Bill 1581 set goals for schools with funding contingent on meeting the benchmarks.

The legislation has left Whitsett torn. While he sees a need to pare down the quantity of educational programs for young children and make the system more efficient, he is troubled by where the control lies.

“These bills are simply giving authority over all those programs to a board appointed by the governor,” Whitsett said. “In order for the education system to be appropriate, it needs to be locally-guided, not centrally-guided.”

McLane was most pleased by the passage of SB 1532, saying that his number-one priority was to protect data centers located in enterprise zones from central assessment taxation.
“It was a win for (House) District 55 and Crook County,” he said.

McLane went on to praise the hard work of his colleagues, making mention of successes in health care and education reform in particular.

At the same time, he was upset that Democratic leadership allowed no Republican jobs bills to pass — particularly a bill McLane sponsored that would have allocated water from the Columbia River for agricultural needs.

“In the end, that was disappointing,” he said. “Any time people quit listening and just immerse themselves in partisan politics, it doesn’t serve the State of Oregon.”

With the first short session in the books, McLane hopes that future 35-day sessions will yield a lighter work load.

“I think way too many policy bills were introduced,” he said. “It really was a lot to engage in, in such a short period of time.”

McLane added that the work load left little time to lobby on behalf of his legislation, which is typically a part of the legislative process.

Whitsett likewise felt the Legislature tried to accomplish too much, pointing out that 300 bills were introduced and around 120 passed. Of particular concern, he felt that the frenetic pace removed the public from the lawmaking process.

Along with the increased work load, Whitsett disputed the common practice this session of attaching an emergency clause to bills so they take effect with the governor’s signature. Ordinarily, bills take effect a few months later.

“The purpose of the delay is to give the people time under their constitutional right to refer a bill,” he said. “Its passage becomes null and void until the people decide.”

According to Whitsett, 71 percent of the laws enacted came with an emergency clause attached, leaving citizens no chance to petition for a referendum.

“Certainly, most of the bills that pass, most of the laws that are enacted, the people are not going to come after,” he acknowledged. “But by the same token, they should have that opportunity.”
McLane and Whitsett both sense that their colleagues agreed that lawmakers tried to do too much, and that next time, they might hold back.

“I doubt whether the presiding officers of the Senate and House are going to allow so many policy bills to be introduced,” McLane said.

Yet in spite of the problems, they thought the session did a lot of good.

“We were able to come in and address things that needed to be addressed,” McLane said, singling out the data center bill in particular. “There is definitely value in the short session, and Central Oregon and specifically Prineville are pretty prime beneficiaries of this session.”

Link: First short session ends on time

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